As Americans celebrated the 242nd anniversary of their secession from Great Britain, references to the Declaration of Independence ratified on July 4, 1776 were many. But while the left reminded us “all men are created equal” and the right reminded us that all inalienable rights come from our Creator, far too little attention was paid to another phrase in Jefferson’s famous preamble: “deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Judging from the way most Americans talk, almost no one remembers how that consent is supposedly obtained.
Hint: It isn’t from voting in elections, but that’s what most Americans seem to believe. According to this narrative, representatives are elected democratically, and by casting one’s vote, one consents to whatever legislation the representatives who win the election choose to pass, or whatever executive actions the elected president chooses to take. In the aftermath of Obamacare’s passage, surrogates for President Obama often justified that new federal endeavor with the quip, “That’s why we have elections.” Conservatives employ the same reasoning when their candidates win.
That raises the question: Why did the framers bother with Sections 8, 9 and 10 in Article I, Sections 2, 3 and 4 in Article II, or Sections 2 and 3 of Article III? Why did they include Article V at all?
The answer is that the aforementioned sections define the list of powers the people were consenting to, all others being reserved to the states or the people, while Article V was provided as the one and only means for the people to consent to any new powers. Put another way, any power exercised by the federal government that is not among those delegated in the Constitution is power exercised without the consent of the governed.
Tom Mullen is the author of Where Do Conservatives and Liberals Come From? And What Ever Happened to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness? Part One and A Return to Common Sense: Reawakening Liberty in the Inhabitants of America.